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(Un)Happy Hour Regulations

February 10, 2016

Several states restrict or ban happy hour promotions, and many people assume that these restrictions are a remnant of Prohibition. However, the practice of “happy hour”—gathering before dinner for cocktails, wine, or beer—did not actually arise until during Prohibition. Because the sale of alcohol was illegal, drinking was a surreptitious activity performed in the privacy of homes or speakeasies. Thus, enthusiastic imbibers would gather in private for a couple of drinks prior to heading out to a public establishment for dinner, where alcohol would not be served. Following the repeal of Prohibition, happy hour specials were popular at restaurants and bars across the nation. However, the 1980s brought an increased focus on preventing drunk driving, which spurred changes to alcohol laws. In 1984, President Reagan signed a bill encouraging the nationwide adoption of 21 as the minimum drinking age, and states that refused to raise the legal drinking age to 21 lost substantial federal highway funds. Also, during this time, several states and municipalities passed laws banning happy hours in an attempt to reduce excessive consumption and drunk driving.

Happy hour regulations can take many forms. Examples of happy hour promotion types that are frequently prohibited or restricted include:

  • Unlimited Drinks — Many states, including New York, prohibit on-premise licensees from offering unlimited drinks for a single price. See N.Y. Alc. Bev. Cont. Law § 117-a.
  • Specials Lasting Only a Portion of the Day —North Carolina is one of several states that disallow on-premises licensees from offering a reduced price drink for only a portion of the day, such as between 4-6pm. See 14B N.C. Admin. Code 15B .0223.
  • Specials Only Available to a Segment of the Population — North Carolina also prohibits drink specials that are only offered to a segment of the population, such as a “Ladies’ Night” special. 14B N.C. Admin. Code 15B .0223. California also prohibits businesses from offering discriminatory price specials, such as specials that are based on a patron’s sex. Cal. Civ. Code § 51.
  • “Two-for-One” or Multiple Drink Specials — Several states, including Virginia, prohibit retail licensees from selling multiple drinks for a single price, such as a “two-for-one” special. See 3 Va. Admin. Code § 5-50-160.
  • Stacking – Massachusetts and Hawaii do not permit retail licensees to deliver more than two drinks to one person at one time, while Connecticut prohibits the delivery of more than one drink to any one person at one time. 204 Mass. Code Regs. 4.03; Honolulu Liquor Comm’n, Rule 3-84-78.52; Conn. Agencies Regs. § 30-6-A24b.
  • Temporal Restrictions — Ohio permits “happy hour” time periods, where drinks may be sold at a reduced price; however, no “happy hour” specials are permitted after 9pm. Ohio Admin. Code 4301:1-1-50.
  • Limit to Amount of Discount – Some states regulate the permissible amount of a discount for drinks for on-premises consumption, such as South Carolina which prohibits discounts greater than 50%, and Tennessee where drink discounts may not result in a price below the licensee’s cost. See S.C. Code Ann. § 61-4-160; Tenn. Code Ann. § 57-4-203.

Although many states have regulations prohibiting happy hour promotions, there have been some permissive changes in the past few years. In 2012, Kansas relaxed its laws regarding on-premises alcohol promotions, and drink specials that last only a portion of the day or apply only to a segment of the population are now permissible. In 2014, Virginia revised its happy hour laws slightly, allowing bars and restaurants to use the phrase “happy hour” via advertisements both on and off the licensed premises. In 2015, happy hour returned to Illinois, which now allows licensees to offer temporary drink specials for up to four hours per day, and not more than fifteen hours per week.

For advice regarding your state’s regulations governing happy hours and other alcohol promotions, contact one of the attorneys at Strike & Techel.


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